Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the story reflect the way the world works?

This is one of the toughest restrictions writers face: No matter how much meaning you pack into your stories, audiences won’t be moved if they don’t buy it. You need to make your world real to them if they’re going to care about it. Pass the Holden Caulfield test: You can’t be phony or they’ll just roll their eyes. 

For your story to be meaningful, it must ring true to the audience. It must resonate with their understanding of human nature. Most important, every story, even those not set in our world, needs to reflect “the way the world works.”

Many of the criticisms of the Star Wars prequels boiled down to “That’s not the way the world works.” These attacks hit home, even though, if you think about it, these movies aren’t set in “the world” at all. It’s a different universe, so can’t people act differently?

Nope. Audiences will happily accept different laws of physics before they accept screwy logic. In Revenge of the Sith, the villain convinces our hapless antihero that killing a bunch of kids will save his wife from dying in labor. Huh? He bought that? That’s just not how things work—in any world, anywhere.

You need to know how human nature works on a universal level, and you also need to know how people tend to think differently within various subgroups: different time periods, different nationalities, different professions, etc.

For example, I once read a script about a bunch of small-town cops investigating the murder of the town beauty. When the town drunk is found with a bloody knife, he is arrested, even though he has no known connection to the girl. But then one cop finds a love letter from the girl to the drunk—so they determine he couldn’t possibly be the killer.

Wait—what? That’s not the way the world works! Every cop anywhere knows that love is the number-one motive for murder. If the cops find evidence that two people secretly loved each other, it would greatly boost the suspicion. Even if the audience somehow doesn’t know this common wisdom, they’ll be able to sense something is screwy about your cops.

Inception has the same problem. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, whose deranged wife killed herself and framed him for the murder. He wants to tell everybody she was mentally disturbed, but, alas, he explains:
  • Her letter to the authorities refuted all the claims about her sanity that she knew I'd make. ... She'd had herself declared sane by three different psychiatrists. It was impossible for me to explain the nature of her madness. ... 
Huh? On my planet, there are at least two things wrong with that logic:
  1. No psychiatrist would ever declare anyone to be categorically sane. There’s no blood test for sanity. Psychiatrists can declare a person legally competent to stand trial, but that’s actually the opposite. It means the person is capable of doing a bad thing, not incapable. 
  2. In the eyes of your average jury, simply going to a psychiatrist is enough to prove you’re nuts. Going to three psychiatrists and asking each for a little note that says you’re sane is enough to prove you’re really nuts. 
People know how people are supposed to act. There is such a thing as human nature. That said, there are rare exceptions, depending on your genre. Certain literary conventions have become so ingrained that we now fail to see the problem. In fact, the realistic version would seem weird.

One of the most obvious ones is “The Mastermind Fallacy”: In fiction, the cops always have a breezy contempt for dumb crooks, but they’re terrified of criminal masterminds. When the phone rings and the cool voice of a master planner is on the other end, a cop’s blood suddenly runs cold. But this isn’t actually the way the world works. In real life, the exact opposite is true.

Real-life cops love smart crooks who have figured out all the angles. First, they tend to be nonviolent. Violence is always a dumb move, after all. Second, and even better, masterminds are actually rather easy to catch. Their actions are logical. They act in the most advantageous way, which is never that hard for the cops to guess.

On the other hand, cops tend to be terrified of dumb crooks, who are often violent and totally unpredictable, which makes them very hard to outmaneuver. In fact, cops are most afraid of criminals who are wacked out of their minds on drugs. Who knows what they’re going to do? Who knows who they’re going to hurt? Who knows what twisted logic will make sense to them?

So, if writers are always supposed to reflect the way the world works, why do they have a big blind spot here? Because mastermind-type stories, while totally inauthentic, are just too much fun to give up. And marauding meth heads are no fun at all. And this has been going on for so long it isn’t likely to change.

So there are certain genre-specific exceptions to the “way the world works” rule, but don’t let them go to your head. Never doubt that, even in these cases, the audience does know, deep down, that these stories violate common sense. They are giving you a pass for the same reason you’re giving yourself a pass: These types of stories are just too juicy to pass up.

Never assume that because your audience has chosen to suspend disbelief about one aspect of your story you can now play fast and loose with other things. As one of my fellow students once wisely put it, “Just because we believe that Superman can fly doesn’t mean that we’ll believe it when he turns on the TV at the exact right moment to hear the news he needs to hear.”

Rulebook Casefile: The Way the World Worked in Bridge of Spies 
I saw this movie in the theater with James Kennedy, and in deference to my host, I constrained the urge to guffaw several times, and, to my credit, failed only once:
  • Tom Hanks is on the chaotic streets of West Berlin in 1962, happily bickering with his CIA handler. As they argue, Hanks asks to borrow a few coins and heads over to a phone booth. They’re still exchanging quips as he plops the coins in and dials. Finally Hanks holds up a finger for quiet as his wife picks up the phone, in upstate New York, and he assures her that he’s still on his Poconos fishing trip.
If you have any years on you, your eyes have probably rolled right out of your head at this point. Even 35 years later, when I was in college, you couldn’t walk up to a payphone in Indiana and call another state simply by plopping in a few coins. In 1962, If you wanted to call the US from a German pay phone, it would require several operators on both sides of the Atlantic, at least one of whom would inform his wife she was getting a call from Germany, and even if they didn’t, she would be well aware simply because it would sound like it was traveling all that way. Long distance at the time was essentially a series of tin-can phones. Most intercontinental business was still handled by telegraph.

So who cares? Can’t we cut period pieces a little slack? What does it really matter? Indeed, I could practically hear the off camera discussions, in which several people on set quietly insisted to Spielberg that this made no sense, and he blithely responded with a chuckle and that old chestnut: “If they notice that, we’re not doing our job!”

They did, and you weren’t.

There was a reason that, back when I used to direct, I banned that phrase from the set. It originated in the editing room as a way to philosophically accept unavoidable continuity errors when it was too late to reshoot anything. At some point, however it drifted onto the set itself, even though there was still time to fix the mistakes, but they just didn’t want to.

If you have contempt for your audience, you can’t hide it. They’ll know.

The Coen Brothers are the credited rewriters of the film, and there are a few scenes that bear their stamp, but clearly many uncredited rewriters (or perhaps the original writer) smothered their wit and acuity with slapdash layers of Spielbergian goop. Indeed, this movie is in stark contrast with the Coens’ own period films, with their meticulous eye for detail and endless fascination with the fabric of the past. Inside Llewyn Davis was set in the same era, and felt startlingly real in all the same ways that this movie felt lazily false.

But which era is that? The movie begins with “1957” emblazoned on the screen and that’s the last date we get. At that point we meet Hanks’ standard trinity of adorable tykes, and their gee whiz fascination with his work. At the end of the movie, after a long twisted path of international diplomacy, Hanks extracts Francis Gary Powers from behind the Berlin Wall and returns to his family. Again, they think he’s been fishing, and they have no idea that he was involved, but when he comes home he finds all three kids, who haven’t aged a day, watching TV in the middle of the day, and hopping with joy to see a news report that Powers has been released.

Where to begin? First of all, if they don’t know their dad is involved in this case, why on Earth do they care? As I said to James afterwards, this would be the same as me coming home to find my kids shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, Bowe Bergdahl’s been released!”

But the bigger issue is the children’s unaged vampire state! Okay, I get it, Spielberg couldn’t be bothered to recast, but come on! Clearly, he was just assuming, “Whatever, nobody will be able to do the math and figure out that at least five years have passed at this point. Nobody will remember that that the Berlin Wall didn’t go up until the ‘60s, and I’m not certainly not going to tell them!”

Spielberg desperately grasps at every heartstring he can find in an attempt to force us to care about the events of the past, all the while flipping off anyone who actually cares. At this point, he is so confident of his ability to create his own world that he believes that reality is an inconvenience reserved for lesser directors.

Don’t do this. Don’t do what the final writer of this movie did, whoever he or she may be. Yes, a great writer can make any audience care about any situation, but that only works if you care first.

Rulebook Casefile: The Way the World Works (and Doesn’t) in The 40 Year Virgin
My pick for America’s most underrated movie critic is John Powers, who’s occasionally featured on the NPR show “Fresh Air”, where his rising-in-pitch exasperation with modern movies is a consistent delight. One of my favorite golden-oldies was his withering criticism of You’ve Got Mail, the lame remake of The Shop Around the Corner. Powers complained the new version had to be about a shop owner, rather than mere shop employees: “Of course not: then they’d be losers!”

I think of that line often when I see movie after movie about that mythic beast: the small business owner. So you can understand how happy I was to see a movie about everyday shop employees, in which that wasn’t seen as a shameful occupation.

Why is Hollywood so afraid of people who work retail? Obviously, the biggest reason is that this is a common social attitude. If you’re at a party, you’re fine as long as you say, “I have a start-up” (even if it’s a pipe dream that will never make a cent) or “I’m in graduate school” (even if it’s plunging you into a lifetime of debt for a worthless degree) but heaven forbid you say you work retail (which actually brings money in instead of blowing it out.) Even I tend to reflexively pity that answer, thought I quickly upbraid myself.

In movies and TV everybody must either have or aspire to have their own small business, as if that’s a wise goal in the modern economy. Only losers put up with the indignity of a stable income.

So I loved The 40 Year Old Virgin right up until the end when it turns out that, of course, Andy dreams of starting his own stereo store, and, lucky him, makes a half-million dollars to get started by selling his action figures. It didn’t have to be that way. Over the course of the movie, as Andy gains in confidence, he quietly works his way up from the stockroom to the sales floor to store management. Managing a chain store is actually a much better gig than starting your own, especially if you have a brand-new family, but that’s not the Cowboy Way, and every movie hero must be a cowboy in the end.

This is one of the things I greatly admired about Bridesmaids (which was also produced by Apatow): The backstory is that Annie wrecked her life by following her dream and opening her own bakery. That’s the way the world works, but it takes a lot of courage for a Hollywood movie to admit it.

Nevertheless, The 40 Year Old Virgin gets a tremendous amount of credit from me for offering a rare portrayal of content middle-income Americans for most of its running time.

Rulebook Casefile: The (Strange) Way the World Works in Raising Arizona 
In the checklist, I recommend that you establish whether the physics of your world are realistic or stylized, but when I went to my 15 existing checklist roadtests, I was surprised to find that all 15 fell in the “realistic” category (even in The Bourne Identity and Iron Man, the physics are relatively realistic, compared to similar movies in those genres).

But Raising Arizona introduces us to the world of gentle physics. This is most obvious in the blessed life of Nathan Jr, who manages to fall of the roof of a car and endures many other hardships without so much as a scratch.

So how does a movie get us to accept stylized physics? By creating a very stylized tone right away. Star Wars uses its famous fairy-tale title card to temper our expectation of realistic physics in that world, and this movie does something similar with its banjo-and-yodel opening music and shaggy-dog-story narration. This establishes a mood that might be described as “tall tale” or “folk ballad”.

This also brings us back around to the light consequences of this movie that we discussed last time. This is a movie, after all, in which a couple steal a rich man’s baby easily, just by putting a latter against his house, then return it the same way, even after he’s on his guard, and when he finally catches them in the act, he just says “aw shucks, that’s okay,” and gives them advice on how to save their marriage!

Usually, audiences demand that movies reflect the way the world works, and that have real consequences for the characters’ actions. We want these things so that we can believe in and invest in this world, so that we can play along in our seats and try to guess what might happen, secure in the knowledge that the movie will “play fair” with us, and not give itself an out that we couldn’t have guessed.

But this movie alters those expectations very quickly, creating a surreal space in which we shift to a more child-like type of viewing. Here we will receive a different sort of comfort: instead of the reassurance that things will conform to our understanding of behavior, this offers us the reassurance that, thought we’re in a absurd and unpredictable world, at least we’re in gentle hands, and nothing that bad can happen, even when babies go flying off of car roofs, and likable kidnappers get caught red-handed.

Rulebook Casefile: The Way the World Works in The Bourne Identity 

In too many of these movies the focus is on assassins who know how to kill in the most bad-ass way possible, with a million people shooting at them. You need look no further than Liman’s own repugnant follow-up, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which immediately squandered all the good will this movie generated.
In that movie and its ilk, the definition of “assassin” is someone who runs, jumps and shoots as fast and furiously as possible, sliding on their knees through rooms full of killers and shooting 12 of them in 12 seconds, aided immeasurably by having guns in both hands. Basically, the best assassin is the one who makes the most mess.

The Bourne Identity is not even remotely a true story, but writer Tony Gilroy keeps it grounded and he finds that you can actually make a movie more exciting by acknowledging a little bit about the way the world works: Wouldn’t an assassin be the one who makes the least mess?

Chris Cooper’s Conklin has a great line near the end of this movie that finally puts the lie to every other movie like this:
  • Kill Wombosi?? Hell, we can do that any time we want! I can send Nikki to do that for Christ’s sake! Mr. Wombosi was supposed to be dead three weeks ago. He was supposed to have died in a way where the only possible explanation was that he’d been murdered by a member of his own entourage. I don’t send you to kill, I send you to be invisible, I send you because you don’t exist.
That speech not only rings true, it also makes this less-bombastic world more compelling than the high-action version. Once again, Gilroy and Liman have to re-assure us: Yes, we took out the elements that you find most exciting in those other movies, but let us show you that this can be exciting, too. The thrills and spills created by an attempt to remain invisible can create their own kind of suspense that can actually be more thrilling than the pyrotechnics you’re used to.

Compare this movie to another example of stomach-churning Hollywood awfulness at its worst, Knight and Day, which actually has a very similar story. In both movies, a frozen-out CIA operative is on the run from the agency and trying to stop his ex-supervisor. There is a video which has tragically now been taken down in which they counted all the deaths in the movie. 

Tom Cruise, who everyone thinks is a traitor, kills 42 Americans for trying to capture him, including over a dozen in the streets of Boston. (Life in Boston continues unfazed, of course. It’s not like they would just shut down that whole city because a terrorist is on the loose, right?)

Seeing that montage drives home how different The Bourne Identity is, and how much more thrilling it is: Bourne has a much higher degree of difficulty: he’s determined to get away from hordes of police and security guards without hurting them, which is a hell of a lot harder.

We may not notice that Bourne’s not shooting his way out of these situations, but we automatically adopt the movie’s logic and become more desperate in our search for a way out of this using his rules: how do we make it out of here without mess??  That’s a tough question. The more a movie reflects the way the world works, the more readily an audience will leap into the hero’s shoes and really feel the heat of those bullets whizzing past.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Very much so.  It’s so rare to see a movie about people who actually have jobs!


YES. It takes the reality of extremely unsafe workplaces (such as actual non-unionized mines) and amplifies it.

An Education

YES. Very much so. It’s very low key.

The Babadook

YES. There are no forgiven murders.  The authorities notice when he doesn’t go to school.  

Blazing Saddles

YES. In many ways yes, despite the constant absurdity.  Everybody has a very realistic attitude towards black men in the 1870s.  Economic motivations all play out logically.

Blue Velvet

Yes and no, it’s nightmarish and bizarre, but still feels fairly real.  

The Bourne Identity

YES. very much so.  Chris Cooper puts the lie to every other assassin movie when he says that it’s easy to kill someone, but the hard thing is to make it look like someone else did it. 


YES. Very much so. Economic realities loom large. Feelings are painful. Nothing is easy.


YES. the answers to all of the above questions are realistic.


YES. Very much so. It’s a great picture of how conspiracies work. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  the mafia is totally de-romanticized.  Very work-a-day.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.

The Farewell

YES. it’s a true story. 

The Fighter

YES. Very much so.  It’s a true story.


YES. Very much so: Love at first sight is actually a terrible idea, and an invitation for pschopaths to take advantage of you.

The Fugitive

YES. This is a very realistic portrayal of a false conviction, driven by inertia rather than intentional evil.  The way in which the manhunt goes down is also very realistic.

Get Out

YES. and wild and crazy as it is, it feels like, in some odd way, this is the way the world works. 

Groundhog Day

YES. on a strictly metaphorical level. 

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. The costs of war and of peacemaking are both well-portrayed, as well as the nature of disability.

In a Lonely Place

YES. This is a much scarier vision of humorous misanthropy than the charming version Bill Murray tends to play. 

Iron Man

YES. The army isn’t happy about the idea of a super-hero, terrorists have believable motivations and economics. Compare to Nolan’s Batman movies where terrorism is merely motivated by a love of chaos, and billionaires are an abstract ideal.

Lady Bird

YES. Very much so. 

Raising Arizona

NO. This follows the rules of a folk-ballad (it’s easy to break into the rich man’s house, and then he forgives them when he finds out they’ve taken his kid, and even takes an interest in saving their marriage! Certainly, Smalls, too, is very unrealistic.)


NO. Not really.  It’s very silly.  It’s very much a pre-Columbine, pre-9/11 movie, in terms of what Max gets away with.  


YES. It’s a true story.  It shows the adversarial nature of change.  (According to DuVernay, more so than in than the original script)

The Shining

YES. The mechanics of how the hotel works and getting snowed in all make sense.  The dynamics of an abusive family ring true.


YES.  Very much so. 

The Silence of the Lambs

Somewhat. Despite all the realistic tradecraft, both Lecter and Bill turn out to be pretty unrealistic serial killers. This portrait of evil is more of a manifestation of ‘80s-era prejudices against other things (psychiatrists, transsexuals) than a realistic portrait of psychopathy.  

Star Wars

YES. The farmers don’t care about the revolution. The empire has a toothless Senate to give it a fig-leaf of democracy.

Sunset Boulevard



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